May my exploration of faith be a blessing to others.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Making the Sign of the Cross via Wikimedia Commons
You can always tell when a movie character is supposed to be Catholic: at some point or another, he will make the Sign of the Cross. For those raised outside of this tradition, it was certainly a foreign act, which we perceived somewhere along the scale of silly and useless to exotic and interesting.

Making the Sign of the Cross is common among the various Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches. Albeit some cross themselves left to right (like the Roman Catholics) while others go right to left (like the Eastern Orthodox). Some Protestants (like Episcopalians, Methodists and Lutherans) also use the Sign, but it is much more closely associated with the older Christian faiths and is used more regularly among their followers.

Whether you have a Bishop or Priest bless you with the Sign of the Cross or you cross yourself, the act is what the Church calls a "sacramental." This means that it is a symbolic action that serves as a means of receiving sanctifying grace. In simple, everyday terms it is a reminder of all you have professed to believe--I've seen it referred to as a "mini Nicene Creed"--that can be used as both a blessing and a prayer.

For Catholics and some others, it is used throughout the worship service and the Mass. Most Catholics will cross themselves with Holy Water upon entering the Church and again, while genuflecting, before taking a seat in recognition of the physical presence of the Blessed Sacrament. The Celebrant will use the Sign of the Cross to bless the congregation several times throughout the Mass, especially at the end of prayers. The congregants will mirror this action by crossing themselves. They will also make a smaller Sign of the Cross over their foreheads, lips and hearts before the reading of the Gospel and will cross themselves after receiving the Host. After the Mass, most will genuflect and cross themselves before leaving their seat and one final time with Holy Water before exiting the Church.

By adriatikus via Wikimedia Commons
But what does all this arm waving mean? Like all sacramentals, the Sign of the Cross is steeped in tradition and symbolic meanings. The proper way to do it is with the first two fingers and thumb extended and touching each other represents the Trinity, while the last two fingers touching the palm signifies the dual nature of Christ as both God and Man. The movement from the forehead across the heart and down to the stomach and then from one shoulder to the other is also packed with meaning: a consecration of our minds, hearts and actions to God while tracing the ultimate symbol of Christ's sacrifice, the cross.

Of course, you don't have to be in Church to use the Sign of the Cross. Catholics are encouraged to use it to dedicate their actions to God, as a blessing on people and objects (like meals!), and as a protection against evil (since the Devil hates the Cross). So you can use it in your own prayers and at the beginning of any activity whether that's starting a new project at work, cooking dinner or playing a game of tennis. As one person posted on Catholic Answers Forum"Good gravy, when is it NOT appropriate?!?"

In my daily life, I also use it as I pray for others. I have established "reminder" cues to encourage myself to pray for the well-being of others. So, I cross myself to invoke the protection and blessing of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit when I pass a hospital or hospice where people are suffering; when I hear a siren indicating that people are in danger; when I see someone stopped by the police so that each side of that interaction may be safe; when I see a young parent walking with children that they may have all of the necessities of life; and when I see a disabled vehicle or an accident so that those impacted will be safe and will have the ability to bear the financial burden of the incident.

My Cradle-Catholic husband crosses himself at similar moments and he also uses the Sign of the Cross when passing any Catholic Church. Just as many Catholics cross themselves upon entering the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, many like my husband pause to recognize that they know the Sacrament is nearby. He will also cross himself near cemeteries to pray for the dead, especially his own parents, and to solicit their intercession on behalf of those still here.

The sacramentals and symbols of the Catholic Church are a great part of the Church's attraction for me. By using the Sign of the Cross, I am not only going one step further than just thinking good thoughts for others, I am also providing a visible sign to those who may see me. Whether in a restaurant, in my car, or on the street, the Sign of the Cross can be a powerful reminder to others that we all should draw closer to God.

For more about this topic, I recommend:

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
1235 The sign of the cross, on the threshold of the celebration, marks with the imprint of Christ the one who is going to belong to him and signifies the grace of the redemption Christ won for us by his cross. 

1671 Among sacramentals blessings (of persons, meals, objects, and places) come first. Every blessing praises God and prays for his gifts. In Christ, Christians are blessed by God the Father "with every spiritual blessing."177 This is why the Church imparts blessings by invoking the name of Jesus, usually while making the holy sign of the cross of Christ. 

2157 The Christian begins his day, his prayers, and his activities with the Sign of the Cross: "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." The baptized person dedicates the day to the glory of God and calls on the Savior's grace which lets him act in the Spirit as a child of the Father. The sign of the cross strengthens us in temptations and difficulties.

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